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Tom Watson
From knee knockers to birdie bombs, Tom Watson has been making almost everything this week. (Redington/Getty Images)

Mastery of the greens keeps Watson's dream alive

Tom Watson is succeeding because he's feeling confident and driving the ball well, but that tells only part of the story. His putting, problematic for many years, has been nothing short of spectacular.

By T.J. Auclair, Interactive Producer

TURNBERRY, Scotland -- In the 1980s and 1990s, Tom Watson’s nemesis was a balky putter that cost him tournaments on more than one occasion.

But apparently time really does heal all wounds.

Watson and his putter have been like carrots and peas at Turnberry this week in the 138th Open Championship, where the 59-year-old, five-time Open Champion will take an unimaginable, yet incredibly inspiring one-shot lead into the final round at 4 under after a 1-over 71 on Saturday.

And the thing about Watson, winner of the first Open Championship played at Turnberry 32 years ago, is that he’s making every putt he looks at this week. There are knee knockers to save par and limit the damage to a bogey and then there are the bombs for birdie, like the 40-footer on No. 16 Saturday, or the 30-footer on No. 1, the 25-footer on No. 9 and the 60-footers on Nos. 16 and 18 all on Friday.

It gets you thinking something is on his side this week, and it might not just be a hot putter.

Isn’t it ironic that the one aspect that gave him so much trouble is the part that he’s riding this week?

“It's not ironic. Every now and then it works, you know,” reasoned Watson, the No. 1,374-ranked player in the world. “It's just every now and then. And, boy, is it working at the right time right now.”

Watson has been to golf what Houdini was to magic this week. For the second day in a row on Saturday, he bounced back from a rough start to pull the reins back in and claim the top spot. He’s averaging 30 putts per round, which is one putt less than the field but doesn’t even begin to tell the story.

Just when everyone thought Watson was fading in the third round after a bogey on No. 15 moved him to 3 over for the day, he holed that 40-footer for birdie at No. 16 and just missed a 25-footer for eagle on No. 17 before tapping in for birdie and parring the last for the 71.

“Frankly, when I finished the practice round on Wednesday, I really felt good about my chances to do well in the tournament,” Watson said. “And so far so good. I've played well. I've kept the ball in play off the tee.

“I was driving the ball in the fairway and, you know, the most important thing is to drive the ball in the fairway,” he added. “Tiger is gone because he couldn't drive the ball in the fairway; he couldn't get it there. But for some of us it's been a good week that way.”

Watson said he’s done something this week that he hasn’t done in a long time: followed a game plan.

“I made a game plan, and normally I haven't ever made a game plan playing,” said Watson, who’s looking to supplant Julius Boros as the oldest player to win a major (Boros was 48 when he won the PGA Championship in 1968). “I said, the last 36 holes this is what I want to do. And I'm actually kind of on course with that game plan, with the number of birdies, number of bogeys that I feel like I can make.”

It’s been a while, but Watson has always been known as a closer, winning 39 times on the PGA TOUR and 12 times on the Champions Tour. Of course, he hasn’t won a PGA TOUR event since the 1998 Memorial Tournament, so maybe you can throw that stat out the window when the pressure mounts on Sunday.

But if you’re expecting Watson to allow nostalgia and nerves to get in his way at all in the final round, think again.

“I feel like my nerves are too well fried to feel them,” he laughed. “Yeah, I mean, come on. Let's just kind of go with what I've got. I'm not thinking about that.”

If Watson needs any positive thoughts to draw back on as he sets out to make history on Sunday, all he needs to do is think back to 1977 and his one-shot victory over Jack Nicklaus right here at Turnberry, known as the Duel in the Sun. Watson shot 65-65 on the weekend to Nicklaus’ 65-66.

“My confidence is … yeah, it's a little better,” Watson said. “I haven't played a competitive round since the Watson Challenge in Kansas City about a month ago. And prior to that was the Senior PGA (Championship).
“I'm building on it. It's one of those things where you build on it during the week. The first day it was great to start off that way,” he added. “And the second day I struggled but then came back.  So that was a confirmation. Today I made some good putts. I made some great pars today, which you have to do on a windy day here at Turnberry.

“Tomorrow maybe I can go out there and complete the game plan and do what I think I have to do to win the tournament.”

If Watson does win, it might be the greatest story in the history of sports and prove once and for all, that age really is just a number.

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